Life in Georgian Cumbria

Cumbrian Characters doesn’t touch much on Georgian Cumbria. Mainly because it’s easier to find information on the 19th century. Births, marriages and deaths were standardised as a civil matter from 1837, and the records are easy to find online, whereas parish registers mean trips to the archives or library, and scrolling through miles of microfilm. And from 1841, we have the ten-yearly national census to give us a wealth of detail about our ancestors. And the censuses are also now available online (via subscription sites), again giving family historians easy access.

It’s such as shame there’s relatively little that’s readily available to research on Georgian Cumbria. It was a fascinating period that saw the rise of the middle class, and the high street, and the transformation of society. Britain had been an agrarian society, run by landowners: there was the gentry, and then there were the peasants, working the fields. The Georgian period saw the growth of urban society, of industry and commerce.

The 18th century also ushered in a great age of theatre building and rebuilding, including the Theatre Royal in Roper Street, Whitehaven, which opened in 1769.

Georgian theatre, Whitehaven, Theatre Royal,
Spoiled for choice at the Theatre Royal, Whitehaven in 1786

Scandal and entertainment

It also saw the print industry blossom, with newspapers, pamphlets,  journals, magazines, plays, and novels. And the audience loved a bit of gossip.

In January 1786, the Bury and Norwich Post reported:

On Saturday, a man was brought before the Lord Mayor by his wife. He was at leasft feventy years of age, and his fpouse not lefs than fixty. The charge was that the old gentleman frequently played truant, and particularly on the preceding night he had been found in bed with two girls, the elder not above feventeen.

So what was happening in Cumbria that month?

In Westmorland, the hunt was on for one James Holland, who had escaped from Appleby Gaol. A new prison was built at Appleby in 1771, which could accommodate 20 inmates, both men and women, in one communal cell. The police station on The Sands occupies part of the site today.

Holland was a weaver by trade, but had been following the ‘trade’ of quack doctor.

His description makes it sound like he’d be easy to spot. He was about 5’ 6”, with curly red hair, and his face pitted with smallpox scars. He had been wearing a long red and black coat, and a white coat with silver buttons, along with a velvet waistcoat with yellow buttons, nankeen britches (suggests yellow), and a pair of old striped trousers.

That and the leg irons must have made him stand out in Appleby, for anyone looking to apprehend him and claim the five guineas reward. Although as the main photo shows, men’s fashion was, er, colourful, I doubt many men in Georgian Cumbria followed the fashions of London and society.

Holland was caught at some point, but it didn’t deter him. In July 1786, it was reported that he and a John Harrison had dug their way out of Appleby Gaol, with a two guinea reward offered a month later.

Also missing in January 1786 was an apprentice saddler, William Cumberland, aged 17. His mother Mary, of Penrith, asked anyone seeing him to treat him kindly and tell him she’d squared it with his master: he didn’t have to serve him any more. He might have been harder to spot. The only distinguishing feature listed is that he’d recently lost his left thumbnail and it had yet to grow back.

All the World’s a stage

Meanwhile, there was plenty of entertainment to be had in Georgian Cumbria. Whitehaven theatre-goers could see a comedy play with musical interludes called The Fashionable Lover; a farce called All the World’s a Stage; a comedy called Conscious Lovers; a musical entertainment called The Flitch of Bacon; a recital of a poetical piece called Symptoms of Galloping; another poetical piece called Tony Lumpkin’s Ramble through Whitehaven, and; another comedy, The Young Quaker.

If all that hilarity was too much, there was also to be a performance of Romeo and Juliet, with A Solemn Dirge in the fourth act.

After the play would be a large, transparent scene, painted by Mr Young, featuring lifesize figures of Shakespeare, his muses, and the death of ‘that great stage luminary’ David Garrick.

David Garrick as Richard III
David Garrick as Richard III